What germinated as an idea last fall is now in full bloom at the Environmental Sciences Western Field Station.
Field station manager Grant Edwards and horticultural specialist technician Caroline Rasenberg have created a pollinator garden at the site, located 14 kilometres north of campus on Wonderland Road, where researchers in the departments of biology, physics and astronomy and geology, along with those from the Faculty of Engineering and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada conduct inter and multidisciplinary research.
Edwards and Rasenberg were inspired after talking with biology professors Jeremy McNeil and Keith Hobson, who study the decline of monarch butterflies due to loss of habitat, and loss of nectar corridors, respectively.
The discussion underscored the importance of increasing pollinators ─ birds, bats, bees, butterflies, moths and small mammals – that move pollen from one plant to another. It also prompted Edwards and Rasenberg to take action, and take advantage of the field station’s naturalized surroundings.
“There was a large area where we had to cut the grass all the time,” Rasenberg said. “We thought, ‘let’s take that out of commission and put a pollinator garden there instead.’”
The plot of land, just under a quarter acre, became a passion project, now bursting with blossoms that provide a sustainable supply of nutritious pollen and nectar.
“Increasing pollinators is our number one goal,” Rasenberg said.
Meticulous, mundane work
Work got underway last fall, with Edwards removing the grass and weeds and tilling the land. Rasenberg began scouting for seeds for native plants, recommended by ecologist and Western PhD student Mathis Natvik.
Summer student Adin Kennedy, who’s in his third year of an honours specialization in health sciences with biology, helped measure and divide the land into 28 six by six metre lots.
He also weighed the approximately 30 different kinds of seeds – the size of specs of pepper – in .01-to-.02-gram increments to ensure each plot had the same amount and variety of flowers. They added wheat bran to the mix to help disperse the seeds evenly.
“It was hard, mundane work,” Rasenberg said, “but Adin did an amazing job.”
Rasenberg and Kennedy planted the seeds using a handheld seeder before firming the seed bed down with a light roller.
“Then, after that, it was Mother Nature’s job for moisture, with additional help from us watering, weeding by hand and watching it grow.”
Fruits of labour
The garden boasts a variety of annual, biannual and perennial plants including lance-leaved coreopsis, plains coreopsis, Flanders poppies, California poppies, cornflowers, bee balm and Russell lupines.
At first, the plot was a “giant green mat,” Rasenberg said. “Then, all of a sudden, the yellow coreopsis came out. We’d take pictures of it weekly to see what had germinated and what was in bloom. There were always different flowers coming along.”
The garden continues to offer regular enjoyment, and features benches, and butterfly and bird boxes Kennedy built and painted.
More importantly, it’s creating the desired response, with each blossom attracting many pollinators.
“Just standing out there today, you can see different species of bees ─ the honeybee, the bumblebee ─ and the birds, butterflies and moths flying about in there,” Edwards said.
Kennedy shares the satisfaction of watching the results of their work unfold.
“When we were weeding, I wouldn’t want to trample things so I would push the flowers apart,” he said. “When I did that, the bees, flies, butterflies would just come flying out.”
If the pollinators had to rely solely on the crops, such as cucumbers grown at the field station, they would have to wait until June for the blossoms. But the plants in the pollinator garden flower earlier.
“It’s important to the ecosystem to have something like this established as a type of safe haven for the pollinators,” Edwards said. “It’s beneficial to keep nectar and food sources more available and the garden also offers shelter they can’t get from the crops being farmed with machinery.”
Edwards and Rasenberg look forward to doing even more, motivated to not only help impact the plight of the migratory monarch butterfly, which was recently added to the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, but that of several endangered Ontario insects and birds, including warblers, swallows and the redheaded woodpecker.
“This project was a learning experience in how we might be able to expand it along the drainage ditch banks,” Edwards said.
They’re also hoping to inspire others. “People ask what you’re doing, you talk about it, further educate them and it has a domino effect,” Rasenberg said.
“It’s all about balance, creating awareness and protecting the environment at every level.”